Smash Pages Q&A | Sarah Winifred Searle on ‘The Greatest Thing’

The creator of ‘Sincerely, Harriet’ discusses her latest graphic novel, mental health management, making zines and more.

Sarah Winifred Searle’s new book The Greatest Thing is a thoughtful and raw book about teenagers that, like all her work, is brutally honest but not unkind, looking at mental health and the possibilities of art. It is a quiet story about high school outsiders who are creative and rebellious in their own ways, struggling with their own issues as much as they push against their small town and expectations.

Searle is the cartoonist behind Sincerely, Harriet, which I talked with her about when it was published, and many other books and short comics. I was thrilled to talk about her new book, which is her best work to date.

Where did The Greatest Thing begin?

I’m gonna start real heavy here, but: I did a lot of thinking when teen suicide stories became a trend in young adult media. My own teen years were influenced by depression and self harm, and I lost some people I’ve loved –– one of whom had been a close friend some years before it happened –– to suicide. I ended up consuming a few of these YA stories, and I couldn’t help but wonder why I kept seeking some sort of catharsis from books and shows. And of course, as a writer I had to ask myself: is this topic something I want to make a book about?

Took some time to think about it and turns out: no, not really.

The answer I came up with was that if I did revisit my high school years, it should be to explore what my relationships with those people meant to me while they were alive. I miss them because we had something really special, you know? Something that helped shape me as a person. And from there this book started to take form.

It still has its roots in that initial thought exercise, but I went in a slightly different direction in the end. Now it’s a fictionalized story about the start of my personal journey with mental health management.

This is a semi-autobiographical story, but you decided to fictionalize it. Why?

Memory is a funny thing, and I’m sure my mental picture of that time in my life has been eroded and informed and reshaped by the past twenty years. I feel that I can speak truly about the emotional core of my own experiences, but not anyone else’s. Fictionalizing the story felt like the only way to go, to respect other people’s privacy and acknowledge the inherently selfish scope of this book. So Win is me, but my friends and teachers in the book are fictional creations inspired by many different people and impressions left on me back then.

Given that, and that you’re not necessarily writing about other people and telling their stories, what was it like trying to find the emotional truths and the parts of your life that were important and that needed to be a part of it?

I thought I’d processed what I’d gone through before I started writing, but the actual book-making process taught me otherwise! Something freeing about making this fiction is that while Win is just as dense as I was, she gets to react to things more as they happen rather than wait until she’s in her 30s to understand what’s happening.

For example, while April (like Oscar) was created with the inspiration of several people, a bit of myself, plus a heavy dose of fiction, the last conversation she has with Win is based on a real one that happened back then. But I didn’t realize until I was scripting that something they said had gone right over my head, and I was able to allow my characters to talk it out in ways we couldn’t back then. Because of that, they both get a bit more closure than we did in real life. Even if that makes it less “true”, it makes it a much better and worthwhile story for this particular format. Another reason going with fiction was the right choice.

Did you always know that the zines would be such a key part of the story?

Yes! Zines were a big part of my social life in high school, though I fictionalized this aspect a bit to keep the story focused.

A cool librarian first introduced me to them when I was a freshman, she’d sneak me copies of feminist/punk stuff she made. Some guy friends had a zine series, I don’t remember contributing much content but I did help fold and staple. It featured crude limericks. And I made a series of my own comic zines, which I talk about in the back of The Greatest Thing (with pictures!).

I combined zine memories with some other collaborations. One of my best buds drew this sprawling comic fantasy that filled over 100 pages of lined notebook paper, where our friends were all characters in a Tolkien-style epic. When I couldn’t wait for the next installment, I’d draw fanart. And I’d make art inspired by other friends’ ideas and writing, including one friend’s poetry, as a way to show that I cared about them and the stuff they were making. Using my skill as a gift became a way to communicate with people.

I hope that shines through in The Greatest Thing’s zines.

You made this book after making Sincerely, Harriet and what did you take away from that experience that informed how you worked here?

Sincerely, Harriet was a learning experience in so many ways, but the bit that stands out to me most is it showed me what parts of my previously smaller-scale comic-making workflow were unsustainable if I wanted to make comics my career. I changed up a ton of my tools and software –– Cintiq to iPad, Photoshop to Clip Studio Paint, etc –– and I’m so glad I did, I’ve found a much better setup for my personal needs and preferences. My back is so much happier these days.

Compared to Harriet, this book is bigger and has more settings and more colors. Were you consciously thinking about that and finding new challenges and approaches?

Win’s world is so much bigger than Harriet’s, it was a very different book to draw! I’d also never colored for uncoated paper before, which changed my approach. But I really enjoyed the general experience, since I could essentially create a fictional version of the extremely cute coastal Maine town I grew up in. I live very far away from there now and I get homesick sometimes, so it was nice to live in that environment mentally while creating the book. As far as the technical challenge, perspective rulers in Clip Studio Paint helped a huge amount with making the more ambitious backgrounds feel manageable.

I remember that you said that you never intended to make a book for younger readers when you started Sincerely, Harriet and I was curious about whether you had the same approach for The Greatest Thing?

I knew it was going to be a young adult book from the start, though that kind of consideration becomes more instinctual once you get to know an industry better. I’d dreamed of working with First Second, and the pitch naturally fit into a genre that they do extremely well. I still feel so lucky that they went for it.

Why did you decide to specifically set the book in 2002-03?

I couldn’t imagine it any other way once I got started with my own life as the inspiration. Plus that’s when I had real life experience as a teen, so I knew I couldn’t mess up the slang too bad, haha.

What did you think of the line from Kirkus that described the book as “Set in an era when landline phones were still in use”? Because I love when my lifetime is talked about like it’s the Hapsburg empire.

I know, right?? I really got a kick out of it. But after Sincerely, Harriet came out I heard from a school librarian that books set during the 1990s can be considered appropriate for historical fiction reading assignments, so it won’t be long before The Greatest Thing is in that category too. Incredible.

So, the final word is yours. Who do you hope discovers The Greatest Thing? What did you love about making it?

Time to be corny: I put everything I had into this book and I hope it shows! I did my best to depict some messy kids with the patience and love they deserve, without relying on platitudes or oversimplifying the challenges they face for tidy resolution. Mental illness management is a lifelong journey, this is just the beginning for Win and her friends, but that doesn’t have to mean their futures are bleak. I felt hope back then, and I still do.

I think there are quite a few folks out there who crave more realist depictions of ourselves, but this book isn’t just for us. It’s also for everyone else. Reading books about people not like me has enriched my relationship with the rest of the world indescribably, and to be able to contribute in that sort of way for others would be such a privilege.

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